Famous Philosophers: What Did Plato Believe?
The Philosophy of Plato
The Greek philosopher Plato is known across the world for his contributions to philosophy, politics and metaphysics. In this article, I will go over some of his general views as well as some of the more specific ones that he is known for.
- Plato was one of the first consequentialists—he believed that it is the end result that matters, not how you get there.
- In his work "The Republic" he described his version of a perfect society where he supports the government in lying to its people in order to achieve greater happiness.
- This is in the context of approving of eugenics where he invented a method of regulated sexual intercourse, allowing it only at special festivals where people are given sexual partners via a fixed lottery. This lottery would be fixed in order to trick people of 'good breeding stock' to mate with each other and produce strong children.
- Furthermore, children with 'defects' would be disposed of at birth.
- Plato believed that it is only philosophers who should rule over the lands.
- Plato believed that only people who have been proven time and time again to make judgments that are in the best interests of society without clouding their judgment with personal interests should be fit to rule.
- Plato believed that society would work better if none of the 'guardians' (composed of the ruling class and the auxiliaries—those who help the rulers) should own any personal property.
- He believed that abolishing family units and replacing it with a state nursery that would seize and take care of everyone's (including rulers') children would be best for society since the children would not have any family-related biases and so would be completely loyal to the state.
Plato's Theory of Forms
Plato believed that there was only one 'real' version of anything—the perfect version. Everything else that we see with our senses is just an imitation of this perfect version, or perfect 'form'. The imitations we see are all part of the world of appearance, whilst the perfect forms are part of reality.
The best way to explain Plato's theory of forms is through an example: although there are many types of beds (single, double, four-poster), they all share one thing in common that makes them beds: they all try to achieve being a bed. This ideal bed is what all physical beds that we see are trying to imitate, making them imitations and not real forms. Plato believed in this and believed that it is only through thought and rational thinking that a person can deduce the forms and acquire genuine knowledge.
What Plato means by 'genuine knowledge' is his idea that the world of forms is timeless—i.e. nothing ever changes—and therefore knowledge about the world of forms is 'genuine' knowledge. Knowledge about a certain imitation of a true form, say the chair in your living room, is not 'genuine' as this knowledge is not timeless: the chair will deteriorate from the form you know it as and with it the value of your knowledge.
Since the world we live in is constantly changing, Plato concludes that any knowledge we think we have is merely opinion and is subject to change. It is because of his theory of forms that Plato believed that philosophers should rule the world—they are the only ones who seek out true knowledge and not just imitations of it, and so they are the only ones fit to rule based on knowledge.
The 'Magnificent Myth' or 'Noble Lie'
In order to encourage loyalty from the people of the state, Plato devised a lie about our origins: that everybody was born fully formed out of the ground and memories of their upbringing were just a dream. In this way, all citizens are encouraged to regard each other as siblings since they all came from Mother Earth, encouraging loyalty to each other and the land that they inhabit. This is known as the 'Noble Lie' or the 'Magnificent Myth'.
The myth also includes the idea that when God created every person, he added either gold, silver or bronze to their composition. Those people with gold were to be 'Rulers', those with silver 'Auxiliaries' and those with bronze 'Workers'.
This meant that if two 'gold' composed 'Rulers' had a child who was deemed to be made of 'bronze' then the child was to be a 'Worker'. Plato devised this extension of the myth in order to encourage people to be happy with their position in life, which was given to them by God and cannot be changed.
A Just State
Plato believed that the perfect state would contain four qualities: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice.
- Wisdom comes from the Ruler's knowledge and wise decisions.
- Courage is demonstrated by the Auxiliaries who defend the lands and selflessly help the Rulers.
- Self-discipline arises from the harmony between all three classes.
- Justice comes from everyone doing what they are 'naturally' fitted for.
The Three Parts of the Soul
Plato identified three elements of the 'soul'. He used the term 'soul' but this should not be confused with spirituality or a part of someone that is separate from their physical body. Rather, Plato used it as a general term for the thing that makes people act.
The three elements are:
- Reason: This is much like 'wisdom' in societies and is the element that considers all of the facts known to a person and then decides what means are best to reach the ends. Reason is also concerned with the love of truth.
- Spirit: This provides emotional motivation and drives people to act in certain ways when they are angry, upset, etc.
- Desire: This drives people to act from baser urges such as lust, hunger, and thirst.
Plato stated that sometimes desire contradicts reason and gives evidence of people doing what they want rather than what is best for them. He uses this as evidence for the existence of the different parts of the soul.
Notice how the three elements correspond to Rulers (reason), Auxiliaries (spirit) and Workers (desire) in a society—this exemplifies one of Plato's strongest beliefs: that the notable aspects of society are equatable to the notable aspects of individuals writ large.
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Do you agree or disagree with Plato's views?
© 2012 DK